Christmas Letter 2016
Gregorios, by the grace of God,
Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem:
May divine grace and apostolic blessing rest on and embrace
my brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod
and all the faithful clergy and laity of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
Christ was born in Palestine: Christianity was born in Syria
These two phrases sum up the most sublime meanings of the glorious Feast of the Nativity. The existence of Jesus is linked to the existence of Christianity, and Christianity’s existence is linked to its relationship with Jesus. There can be no Christianity without Jesus and no Jesus without Christianity and Christians, their presence, role and witness in the world, especially in the Middle East, where Jesus was born.
Today in the Middle East, cradle of Christianity, Christian presence is threatened: threatened by wars that have given rise to this terrifying exodus, especially of Christians. That is what we see particularly in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt – countries that represent the core of Christian presence in the Arab world, in our beloved Middle East.
Preserving this Christian presence is the joint responsibility of all Christians of every community, just as it is the responsibility of Arab countries to preserve Christianity, which constitutes a most significant regional heritage. If we mind about antiquities, stones, the ancient temples of Baalbek and Palmyra, how much more important it is today to look after the “living stones” of Christian presence.
Muslims are responsible for Christian presence, because Christians have excelled in serving their Arab Eastern countries throughout history, before and with Islam. So we may consider the fruits of the Nativity and Incarnation are indeed in the Christian presence and Christian role.
There we have a unique model of the Christian role and of the interaction between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, Christian presence was shown in splendid fashion in the circuit of civilisation of the Mediterranean Sea basin. Here is a description of this unique cultural circuit, in its most salient stages:
The Fathers of the Eastern Churches, Athanasios, Basil, Gregory, Cyril, John Chrysostom and others drew on the Greek or Hellenistic culture that had spread from Athens across the region. They had studied and been in contact with all branches of Greek culture: philosophy, literature, astronomy, architecture, algebra and medicine.
The Church Fathers developed this culture, adopting and adapting it through their Christian faith, based on scriptural and evangelical doctrine. They can be said to have baptized Greek culture, philosophy and literature. The birth of Jesus Christ fleshed out this very varied Eastern civilisation, which we have inherited especially from the Greek Church Fathers whose writings can still be found today in the world’s libraries.
The process of translation, especially from Greek, began when Islam arrived in the region from the Arabian Peninsula and subsequently interacted with Christianity by various means, including wars, extensive cultural interchange and the spread of the Arabic language. Translation was carried out thanks to Christian scholars well acquainted with Greek, as they used it daily in their services and rites, which they celebrated in Greek, Syriac, Coptic or Armenian and later in Arabic. That is all really the work of Jesus’s birth as it embodies Christmas values.
That is how Christians transmitted Greek culture and civilisation in Arabic to Muslim society. That became the basis of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) and philosophy, and the sciences of astronomy, medicine and so forth.
As a result of quarrels between Muslim caliphs, some Muslims headed for North Africa and arrived in Andalusia, Spain, where they founded a Muslim caliphate and state. Arabic influenced local languages, especially those derived from Latin, which was the language of culture and learning in Western Europe. Interaction between both Muslim and Christian cultures took place, again showing the influence of the values of Christmas and Jesus’ Incarnation.
Fruits of this interaction can be seen in the fact that books of Muslim philosophers dealing with philosophy and fiqh were translated into Latin, the scholarly language of Western Europe at that time, rather than into emergent local languages. Through these translations, Hellenistic Greek culture was transmitted to Western Europe and the great theologians of the Christian West via Eastern Christians and the Holy Fathers of the Eastern Churches, and by means of Arab scholars and philosophers, such as Averroes, Avicenna and others. In the writings of the great doctor of the Latin Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, we find quotations from Greek philosophy through Arab writers. There too, we see, as it were, the Incarnation and Christmas moving from East to West.
Neither should we ignore the influence of Jewish scholars in this many-sided pagan, Christian, Greek, Syrian, Muslim, Arabic and Western interaction.
This was a really superb circuit and unique interaction between paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a really local and global Christmas circuit, all taking place in the Mediterranean Sea basin with Eastern Christianity playing the leading role in this unique global cultural circuit.
The role of Eastern Christians
We must confess and recognize as a fact, the existence of Christianity and its very distinguished role in all Arab countries. Christianity is the continuation of Christmas and the effects of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation upon our holy land. It is thanks to our ancestors that faith in Jesus spread across all regions: from the bounds of East to West.
Christianity spread into the Arabian Peninsula, to Qatar, Bahrain, Arabia (today Saudi Arabia), Kuwait and on into India and China.
That means that there were monks, nuns, priests, bishops - and with them intellectual activity, schools, institutions, churches - who participated and continue to participate economically, socially, culturally and constructively in the evolution of these countries. That is what our Christian parents and ancestors have been doing all through history. That is evidence of Christianity’s vitality, even in the face of tragedies and vicissitudes. The Church is indeed as described by Jesus, when he said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16: 18)
We are of the same stock
The lesson that should be drawn from the fact of ancient Christianity’s disappearance from the Arabian Peninsula is not bitterness, hatred, aversion and estrangement, despite everything, including Muslim persecution of Christians at various stages, especially in the period of certain caliphs and governors. Despite that, Muslims and Christians have remained together in the same regions. Moreover, many Muslims whom I know personally in Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem, openly admit that they are of Christian descent.
Their ancestors were Christian, which means that we are of the same stock. Indeed, it is well-known that Christians remained in the majority in the Middle East until the thirteenth century. Thus the influence and values of Christmas can still be seen in Muslim society.
An historic document
We should continue this walk together, leaving room for forgiveness, indulgence and compassion, as stated by The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council fifty-one years ago (1965). It should be recognized that credit for the publication of this paper should go to Easterners, led by Eastern Catholic patriarchs, especially the hero of Vatican II, Patriarch Maximos IV. I presented this document in a paper entitled, Letter of an Arab Christian Patriarch to his Muslim brethren, and then on 4 June, 2016 at the Damascus Opera. In that document are some splendid passages about openness, respect and consideration. Here I quote a passage relating to Islam:
A Christian perspective on Islam
“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the Day of Judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
“Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” (Nostra Aetate, no. 3)
Discovering the values of our faith: Christmas values
Here and there, yesterday and today, in this war situation, we have great responsibility for discovering the values of our Christian faith, Christmas values: similarly, our Muslim brothers and sisters need to discover the values of their faith, so that together we can confront the Latin dictum – which is not addressed to Christians or Muslims or any nation in particular – but to every person, every human being regardless of religion, gender, colour or ethnicity: “Homo homini lupus. Man is a wolf to man.”
Furthermore, by assessing the positive and negative aspects of the various realities of history, we ought to discover together that our future in the Middle East is one and the same. We must build a better future for our rising young generations.
The lesson to be drawn from all that is that now more than ever it is time to work together for this common future, especially in the era of globalisation and in the face of the wave of mainly Muslim emigration from our Arab countries to Europe. This emigration is very dangerous for Muslims and Christians as it can spark bloody strife and civil unrest and stir up anti-Christian and anti-Muslim or Islamophobic feelings.
That is what we see in Europe at present: murderous attacks in Paris and Brussels, demonstrations and fires in refugee camps in Germany, open hostility in Sweden to welcoming refugees …
On the way together: the Christmas walk
It is time to put into practice the 1994 Christmas appeal launched by the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs: “Together before God for the welfare of the individual and of society: co-existence between Muslims and Christians in the Arab World.”
It is still very important today, as was the case throughout history, for Christian educational, cultural, health and social institutions and associations to continue their Christmas mission.
The Middle East, cradle of Christianity, is the strategic place for dialogue, interaction, agreement and mutual enrichment. That is our history, heritage and wealth, despite our disagreements, tragedies and martyrs. Here and now in the Middle East, we can and should preserve this very rich patrimony that is the real patrimony of Christmas, incarnate in the life of the Church in society.
Outside our holy lands it is far more difficult to live this inheritance, which is special for each one of us and common to us all. Our joint responsibility is to preserve this inheritance here, now and for the future. In all humility, we may say that we are masters at “living together.” It is here that we may realise what Pope Francis said to young Christians, namely, that we ought to preserve our identity and be open to the identity, faith, belief and life-style of others.
Christmas: identity and openness
Identity without openness, co-operation, interaction, mutual respect, recognition and acceptance of others as persons (religion, rights, belief) means ghetto, isolation, which gives rise to fear, hostility, and even violence, terror and war... Similarly, openness without identity means emptiness, absence of personality, dignity and rights. Christmas invites us to be both open to others and true to our identity.
We have experience of all this through our long, shared history, despite its tragedies, calamities and crises in relation to citizens of various Muslim and Christian communities. Whatever we think about the circumstances through which we have been going, our Middle East remains the place where we feel that we are in our homeland. Outside our East, we shall perhaps find ease, employment, remuneration, dignity, freedom, but we shall remain guests, foreigners, deprived of much of our personality, heritage, traditions and religious and family values.
Our mission in the East is distinctive, unique, global and historic, and no-one but we can fulfil it. We are the children of the prophets, apostles and Holy Scriptures, the children of Christmas, and each one of us is responsible for preserving his or her history, belief, religion and heritage.
You are the child of the East, the land of Christmas
My Christian brother or sister, this mission rests on your shoulders. You are from a country that is the cradle of Christianity: that remains your mission, even if you emigrate or leave. Your homeland and Christianity remain your mission, wherever you are or wherever you go.
Why are you afraid of life’s difficulties, crises and misfortunes in your country? Is life anywhere in this world without pain, illness and crises? Is your life far from your homeland, cradle of Christianity, really less difficult than your life here in your homeland? Everywhere else, there are problems, illnesses, crises and all sorts of difficulties.
That is why, despite our complete understanding of the reasons for your planning to emigrate, we shall not stop calling on you to try to stay and overcome your fear, misgivings, dangers of war and harsh conditions of your life. Wherever you go, you will be taking the Christmas mission.
Care given to emigrants
I have had a number of meetings with our faithful who have emigrated especially to Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Poland.
On the one hand, I understand the reasons for their emigration; on the other, I pray for the days of war to be shortened, so that they can return to their countries. In addition, I am concerned to provide pastoral and spiritual service, which is provided in Sweden. We have begun setting up a parish in Germany, entrusted to the care of Father Mayyas Abboud. Furthermore, Archimandrite Georges Abboud has been tasked by the Bishops’ Conference with travelling around Germany in search of our faithful and preparing a report about this, in order to continue organising pastoral, spiritual and liturgical services for them. We are also organising a parish in the Netherlands.
Through it all, we wish to help our émigré faithful, in order to preserve the flame of their ancestral faith, so that it continues to glow in their hearts, lives and conduct.
We thank our brother bishops of Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere, who are responding to the various spiritual needs of our faithful.
The Church and emigration
In its attitude towards Eastern Christian emigration, the Church and its bishops make a distinction between our Middle East and other regions, due to the uniqueness of Christian presence in the East. Emigration is certainly a natural right for people everywhere, but emigration from the Middle East is something different, because the Middle East is the cradle of Christianity. Eastern Christians incarnate this Christian presence in the cradle of Christianity. So that Christians’ absence from the Middle East means Christianity’s absence, or rather Christ’s absence, because Christ became incarnate in a geographic country and homeland. Jesus is an Eastern citizen, a compatriot of mine, since I am an Easterner. If Christians emigrate, it is as though Christ were leaving his country and homeland. Were Christian presence to disappear from Christ’s homeland, that would mean Christ’s presence disappearing from his own country. We might then wonder whether Christ was really born in this region that was his homeland, and if there were no longer a single Christian citizen there, and traces of Jesus’ followers had disappeared from his homeland, we would be entitled to conclude that Jesus had not been born in this region, and that his very existence was a myth and not a truth.
Christians are evidence of Christmas
Eastern Christians are evidence of Christmas, the birth of Jesus in the East, and the witnesses of his life, Gospel and mission. We are grand-children of Jesus’ disciples and apostles.
This suggests the importance of Christian presence in the homeland of Jesus, Palestine, and in the regions or countries where Christianity was born, namely historic Syria, which comprises, besides contemporary Syria, present-day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. These countries are the cradle of Christianity, and Christianity’s disappearance from these countries means the disappearance of Jesus’ footsteps.
Hence the great concern of Christian bishops for Christian presence in the region. That is why the problem of Easterners’ emigration is understandably significant, as it is very different from Christian migration elsewhere.
At this Feast of the Nativity, that is what I wanted to explain to our Christian faithful who have to confront so many calamities and such suffering that causes them to emigrate. We bishops realise the full extent and gravity of their tragedy and understand the reasons that drive them to emigrate. Nevertheless, we want to ask them to resist and remain in their land, this Middle East which is the cradle of Christianity and the homeland of Christ.
That is the reason for our position: we recognize every person’s natural right to emigrate to any country. Except in the Middle East, a bishop has no need to worry about the emigration of his faithful, but the matter is quite different for us Easterners.
That is what I wanted to make clear in this letter. Once again, I realise and understand the reasons that have driven and continue to drive our faithful to emigrate, especially nowadays from Syria, to so many other countries. In addition, I respect the decision of our faithful and am expending all requisite efforts to ensure their spiritual, pastoral and social care in the countries to which they have emigrated.
We shall stay here, in this land of Christmas
Our presence here is of great, global and historical significance! We are not asked to sacrifice our families, though we must struggle to remain here despite dangers, difficulties and hardships.
I pray for all those who make up their minds to go, but I do call upon them most emphatically to remain here.
I shall remain, we shall remain, with those who are staying, and Christianity will remain!
The remainder will stay and Jesus will abide with them, and Jesus will remain through those who stay!
Stay so that Jesus, Mary, Christianity and Christmas, the feast shared by everyone, can remain!
I conclude this letter with three Christmas considerations that represent a map, a roadmap for Christians in our blessed Middle East and for those who have emigrated to other countries.
I cite the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, who said that the essential human characteristic is being “with and for.” Eastern Christians are especially called to put this saying into practice, particularly in their countries of origin, with all their fellow-citizens of all persuasions of our Arab countries. They will be with them all, in order to bring them the light of the Gospel by their presence, role, conduct and life-style... Christians are with others, in order for Jesus to be with everyone.
I quote from the speech of the Holy Father, Francis, to the youth of Brazil, telling them that they need two things: identity and openness. This is a motto that Eastern Christians should live by in their Eastern homeland and wherever they may emigrate, because they bear their Eastern identity and live it in their society, whether they are in their country of origin or in their new country. Our identity is Jesus, the new-born Child and God before the ages.
I make my own the famous Latin saying, “Ex Oriente lux.”
Wherever you live, wherever you go, you will remain faithful to the East, and children of the Eastern Church, Mother of all Churches. You will remain children of the East, whence comes the light. You are children of the East and bearers of the light of the East, both in your homeland, which is the East and in every other region outside the East, in every country which becomes your new homeland, because Christ, the Light of the whole world, comes from the East.
Never forget your extraordinary and unique characteristic as children of the East! Noblesse oblige!
Good wishes and prayer
My Christmas letter for this year represents a meditative pause in front of the Christmas Cave and each Nativity icon or scene in our homes and streets. It is a sorrowful, suffering and at the same time joyful interval. It is a meditative moment in front of the Cave and under the Cross, with all our fellow-citizens, an interval of hope, because Resurrection comes after the Cross.
This is a prayer for the peace of Christmas to protect our suffering countries, especially Palestine, Iraq and most especially our beloved Syria. I continue to repeat my motto: give us peace and security, because that is the warranty and condition for Christian resistance, presence, role and witness. We ask the Saviour, born in Palestine, to give peace to his country and stop war in these countries where Christians were born who believe in his name and where Christianity was born.
May the hymn of the angels of Beit Sahur and Bethlehem on Christmas night, the night of the Nativity of Jesus, be fulfilled for us and through us Eastern and Western Christians, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men!”
To you all, I wish a glorious Christmas and a holy year, a year of peace, security and prosperity.
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem